“I suppose I’m ambivalent about Brooklyn, in a can’t-take-it, can’t-leave-it way,” Jonathan Lethem once wrote. It’s an odd statement, given that his native borough has played a leading role in two of his best-known and -loved works. His breakthrough novel, “Motherless Brooklyn” (1999), was a smart, arch take on the hard-boiled detective story, and his magisterial “The Fortress of Solitude” (2003) was an epic tale of art, drugs and music largely set in Brooklyn’s scruffier 1970s. So, what’s with that “I’m ambivalent” business?

On the evidence of his new “Brooklyn Crime Novel,” it may be that he’s found Brooklyn frustrating and confounding to write about in full. Despite a couple of bestsellers about the place, he’s perhaps concluded that no fictional narrative or historical essay can quite do it justice. So this time around he’s tried to blend the two, writing a kind of Brooklyn metanarrative. “Crime Novel” doesn’t have a clear protagonist or rising action; plot-wise it’s a series of scenes, jumbled in time from the ’70s to the present day, mainly but not always about a group of boys living on or near the same street. Interwoven with those scenes are commentaries about history, music, writing, homeownership and more.

Including, of course, crime, which is the closest thing the book has to a true main character. It’s not a bad idea – crime covers a lot of ground. Sometimes crime is massive, genocidal theft: “The drag part of any American story is the name of the tribe whose stolen land was required to enact it in the first place,” Lethem’s narrator explains.

Sometimes, especially toward the end, it’s cruel and bloody. But for much of the book the crimes are petty and nonviolent: construction grifts, thefts, shoplifting, muggings. (Lethem has plenty of disquisitions on how rampant ’70s muggings got handled, from the advice parents gave their kids to where everyone kept their “mugging money.”)

All of these petty incidents fuel what Lethem, a part-time resident of Blue Hill, describes as “the dance,” his catchall term for all the grifts that define the borough. The dance has a racial element to it: White gentrifiers arrive to rehab brownstones, for instance, and Black and Latino residents have to navigate around them. “View the dance more like a system of relations, a flow chart of arrows moving here and there, or iron filings polarizing around magnets,” Lethem writes.

The “dance” conceit makes for a host of well-turned, often funny set pieces. There are detailed descriptions of how kids plot to make off with a skateboard or a pizza slice, or how a man strong-arms a passerby into taking store fliers he no longer wants to pass out. Lethem considers the curious juxtaposition of the jail with a neighboring Quaker meeting house; scammy booksellers and scummy subway denizens abound. A Halloween conflagration turns on a boy in a Nixon mask. Giuliani-era stop-and-frisk tactics are a dance of injustice all their own.


Lethem’s conceit also allows him to avoid a hackneyed story about one violent incident defining Brooklyn; the place is simply full of the stuff, layers and layers of it. It also allows Lethem to avoid romanticizing childhood and ’70s Brooklyn, a vibe that infused “The Fortress of Solitude.” “No music, no honeyed light,” he insists. “Let this inquiry be pure, be flayed of that stuff, the ooze of nostalgia. No special lexicons of forgotten street games.” Lethem cultivates a stoic posture about criminality, the better to elude clichés about it.

So, what does it get him? That’s trickier. Lethem excels at metacommentary. His 2010 riff on John Carpenter’s very meta 1988 horror-comedy, “They Live,” is brilliant. But “Brooklyn Crime Novel” is ostensibly a novel, and his Balzac-ian, kaleidoscopic vision of Brooklyn lacks character. A few individuals do command attention. A young Black boy named C. becomes a kind of ringleader and streetwise neighborhood scholar. An elderly habitué nicknamed the Wheeze holds court at a local bar, mainly to browbeat arrivistes and gentrifiers. But mainly Lethem is trying to establish a mood, bouncing from block to block to show just how deep the grifts run. This being a metanarrative, Lethem expresses his own skepticism about this strategy, calling out his “sardonic distancing maneuvers.”

Lethem isn’t using “Brooklyn Crime Novel” to communicate ambivalence – he plainly loves the place. But it does make him anxious, and the anxiety at times makes the prose feel fussy and overthought. He wants to resurface the criminal side of the city because so often it’s either diminished or extrapolated into nothing but. Fair enough. But while wrestling with “this place that used to be, in a time the city was synonymous with crime,” he’s disinterested in the theme and tone of noir or true crime. He wants to remember but not be nostalgic. He wants to write about crime but not make it seem so – criminal.

It’s a tough needle to thread, and probably a bad place for newcomers to Lethem to start. (Try “Brooklyn,” “Fortress” or his 2011 essay collection, “The Ecstasy of Influence.”) But credit him for being willing to experiment, to try to find a way to write about both place and childhood in an unvarnished way. And to write about crime in a way that isn’t soaked with moral judgment. He doesn’t want to endorse crime, exactly. But he does want to suggest that the petty things we get away with as children – and what we witness adults do – are as defining as any golden-hour memory. “This is a criminal world,” he gently reminds us. “You wouldn’t want to be on just one end of it, would you? Always the victim, never the perp?”

Mark Athitakis is a critic in Phoenix and the author of “The New Midwest.”

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